Friday 30 March 2012

The West is not very happy, Mr President

If I were President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan I would be very concerned with the long expected trial, which started this week, of 37 people accused of involvement in the violence in the Western city of Zhanaozen last year. The clashes between the police and striking workers left at least 14 dead (although different sources say at least 16 or 17) and, as I have mentioned in this blog before, were something unheard of in the former Soviet republic since its independence, 20 years ago. After more than one hundred days since the violence, it was expected that things were a bit calmer by now in Kazakhstan. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. While many Kazakhs in Almaty and Astana just want to leave behind what happened in December and enjoy their lives, this is definitely not the case in the West, in the Mangistau Province, and of course in Zhanaozen. Several reports from the region clearly show that the people there are still really angry not only about the harshness of the police during the clashes, but also about the aftermath of the violence and how the authorities are dealing with it. Reading reports on the internet, it seems that West Kazakhstan is moving away from Astana. A big gap is becoming wider: a gap between where the money and the elites are and where the natural resources (that make the elites rich) are. There, workers don’t have many reasons to celebrate the country’s impressive wealth.

In total, 37 people are on trial in Aktau, the capital of Mangistau, accused of crimes like arson, attacks on police and robbery. In the first days of trial, eight of them were singled out as the ringleaders and might be sentenced to up to ten years behind bars. Of course, most locals believe the workers are innocent and there is as a lot of scepticism about the proceedings. Do you believe the workers will have a fair trial? Nazarbayev said after the clashes that the striker’s demands during the long strike were justified, but probably forgot to tell the police of his opinion before the clashes. “I don't believe him (Nazarbayev) any more. The main values proclaimed by Kazakhstan's constitution - freedom of expression, of the press and above all human life - are empty words here," complained an old man quoted by Reuters news agency, whose nephew is one of the defendants. “It is the state that should be on trial”, said bluntly a pensioner to For these people, the damage will take a lot of effort from the Kazakh president to be undone.

At first, the police didn’t even want to let relatives and friends of the defendants (held in a locked chamber in courtroom, see in the photo above) watch the trial, then, under pressure, allowed some in. They came a long way from Zhanaozen to ask for justice. As a matter of fact, there is a good question to be asked here: why is the trial taking place in Aktau and not in Zhanaozen itself, where the workers and their families live? Are the authorities afraid of the pressure? Also, the judge of the case barred the presence of the press in the courtroom. Why? What is the judge afraid of? One more question: what about an independent investigation about what happened? Why not, Mr Nazarbayev? What are you afraid of? An official investigation said some policemen were too heavy-handed, not much else. An no one knows when these policement will stand trial.

The trial is been followed keenly outside Kazakhstan as well. The NGO Human Rights Watch released a long message asking for a fair trial. In Brussels, European Lawmakers adopted a resolution on March 15 condemning the violence in Zhanaozen, asking for an independent investigation and for assurances of safety of family members of those arrested. But what is more important to Nazarbayev? To assert its dominance and show that he is still a strong leader (despite being 71 years old) or admit he completely mishandled the situation in Zhanaozen and beg his people for forgiveness? He needs to be humble now, not interfere with the trial, but I doubt this will happen. Actually (this is not a joke), the president has announced this month that he is going to write a book on how to become a leader. Perfect timing.

Apart from the 37 workers, other 11 people are being charged with a more serious crime, “fomenting social discord”, and will be tried later (no one knows exactly when). Amongst them there is at least one member of the political opposition, the leader of the illegal Alga party, Vladimir Kozlov, arrested in January. The authorities are linking Kozlov with another Nazarbayev political rival, Mukhtar Ablyazov, an oligarch based in London who, according to Kazakh investigators, channeled funds to support the unrest in Zhanaozen. Either the government became paranoid after the clashes or (more possibly) very rationally is still using the violence in the West to send a message to all opposition leaders, asking them “politely” to behave. Despite this, in the last months, the opposition has organised protests in the country, trying to exploit the feelings against the authorities. In the anniversary of 100 days since the clashes, several demonstrations took place around the country – although, apparently, not many people decided to join them. This doesn’t mean they are useless or don’t have importance. Quite the opposite, they mean a lot: they are a start, they are showing that something is wrong, they are a seed being sown. When the recent protests in Russia started, they were not considered important, but then thousands took the streets in Moscow and Putin, although elected, will definitely have to deal with a different Russia. Nazarbayev might be about to meet a different Kazakhstan.

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